- Dir: Antonio Campos. Cast: Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Bill Skarsgard, Jason Clarke, Riley Keough, Haley Bennett, Mia Wasikowska, Eliza Scanlen, Sebastian Stan, Harry Melling. 18 cert, 138 mins.
Marx once observed that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then farce. But in The Devil all the Time, history shrugs and chuckles darkly: what’s the difference? Antonio Campos’s fiendishly gripping new film charts two decades of mishaps and mayhem in the American wilderness, stretching from the dazed aftermath of the Second World War to the dizzy midpoint of Vietnam, when the US escalated the conflict in the 1960s.
Rooted in the Southern grotesque tradition of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, it tells a tangle of stories about a new generation who are trying to escape the horrific mistakes of the last – but instead find themselves inextricably drawn towards making them all over again, like a child on a bicycle who spots a lamppost at the end of the road and can’t help but pedal straight into it.
Its plot threads twine together two rural communities 100 miles apart: Coal Creek, West Virginia, and the unimprovably named (and entirely real) Ohio town of Knockemstiff. The 2011 novel on which the film is based was written by Donald Ray Pollock, a former Knockemstiff resident, who also narrates the action with such a delectable deadpan drawl that I just assumed he must be Billy Bob Thornton.
Knockemstiff’s 400 or so inhabitants, Pollock informs us early on, are “nearly all connected by blood through one godforsaken calamity or another – be it lust, necessity or just plain ignorance.” In other words, The Waltons this is not, though it does centre on one family in particular: the one started by Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgard) on his return from the South Pacific in 1945, having witnessed unspeakable horrors on the battlefield. He meets and marries a pretty waitress called Charlotte (Haley Bennett), and the two make a home in a patch of Knockemstiff woodland, where they raise a son, Arvin, who is played as a young adult later in the film by Tom Holland.
Having lost his faith, Willard sets about making amends with God – though it’s the Good Lord’s infernal counterpart who seems to be more of an active participant in the Russells’ lives. The same goes for Willard’s childhood friend and one-time intended partner Helen Hatton (Mia Wasikowska), who is captivated by Roy Lafterty (Harry Melling), a travelling preacher whose signature sermon involves him tipping a jar of spiders over his head. These two also marry, and it doesn’t end well – as Pollock’s own voiceover warns us almost immediately, seemingly locking the pair’s lives on their unhappy course.
The same goes for Carl (Jason Clarke) and Sandy (Riley Keough), a charming and attractive couple who meet on the same day – and in fact in the same diner – as Willard and Charlotte. “In the years to come, they’d call their victims ‘the models’,” Pollock purrs, as the two make flirtatious small talk. That’s victims, plural. Carl reveals himself to be an aspiring photographer. His chosen subject matter? You don’t want to know.
Except in a gnawingly horrible way, you really do. Campos’s previous features, from Afterschool to Christine, have all been big on bitter irony, but The Devil All the Time is the first to make its audience a part of the ominous equation, emotionally embroiling us in the destinies of loners and oddballs with whom we might not ordinarily be inclined to side. This is especially true of the film’s second half, in which Holland’s Arvin and Eliza Scanlen’s Lenora, the timid teenage daughter of Helen and Roy, become embroiled with a scheming sheriff (Sebastian Stan) and Preston Teagartin (Robert Pattinson), Coal Creek’s glib and preening preacher, who has a thing for ruffled shirts and pious young girls.
In a strong ensemble, Pattinson is a standout: he’s the kind of actor who can look handsome one moment, terrifying the next, and ludicrous the one after that, which suits Campos’s ripely gothic sensibility to a tee. It also makes him an ideal foil for Holland’s brooding, taciturn Arvin, who keeps his cap pulled down low and his guard perpetually up. And Keough also shines – albeit bleakly – as a jaded moll for whom serial killing becomes a kind of dreary routine, even as her husband’s evangelical zeal for it remains undimmed.
A scene in which the couple pick up their latest victim – a fresh-faced private bound for Vietnam, who introduces himself as Matthew – distils the film’s macabre punch into a single, beautifully delivered exchange.
“Matthew – that’s from the Bible, ain’t it?” Keough asks him, making small talk while keeping an eye on the road.
“Everything’s from the Bible, hon,” her husband happily replies.
The Devil all the Time is available to stream on Netflix from Wednesday September 16